David Wenham on the parables


Jesus’ favourite teaching method was using parables. Mark 4:33 says that, when speaking to the crowds, he spoke only in parables – ‘as they were able to hear’.

Parables are pictures – in words, often stories; as such they are interesting, thought-provoking and powerful. Jesus could – and did – tell his disciples to love their enemies, but the famous parable of the Good Samaritan says it so much more powerfully.

Jesus’ favourite teaching method was using parables. Mark 4:33 says that, when speaking to the crowds, he spoke only in parables – ‘as they were able to hear’.

Parables are pictures – in words, often stories; as such they are interesting, thought-provoking and powerful. Jesus could – and did – tell his disciples to love their enemies, but the famous parable of the Good Samaritan says it so much more powerfully.

People did not always understand the parables at first, and we twenty centuries later may be even slower to understand them. But what can we say about how to understand them?

  • 1. Pray for understanding. Jesus spoke about ‘the mystery of the kingdom of God’ being ‘given’ to his disciples, and he meant ‘given by God’ himself. So it is good for us to come humbly asking God, asking Jesus, to explain the parables to us.
  • 2. Seek to understand the parables in their social, religious and historical context. So Samaritans for us are good helpful people, but for Jesus’ Jewish hearers they were hated: there was a long history of hostility between Jews and Samaritans, and the controversial force of Jesus’ parable lies in Jesus making a Samaritan an amazing and compassionate hero.
  • 3. Interpret the parable in the context of Jesus’ ministry and in particular in the context of his announcing the arrival of ‘the kingdom of God’. I heard someone interpreting the parable as a good lesson in counselling people in trouble – the Samaritan didn’t talk a lot, he helped practically, the handed the wounded man over to the professional carer, i.e. the innkeeper – but this was reflecting the 20th century preacher’s interest in counselling; Jesus told the parable in order to challenge people with the radical nature of God’s kingdom and rule which he was bringing.
  • 4. Interpret the parables in their gospel context: in Luke’s gospel the parable is introduced by the question ‘Who is my neighbour?’ and concludes with the challenge ‘Go and do like wise’. So to interpret it, as some have in the past, as an allegorical story in code about Adam falling from heaven and being beaten up by the devil, before being rescued by Christ, is to ignore its context: in fact it is all about loving my neighbour, including my enemies.
  • 5. Pay careful attention to the form of the parable and to the things that are emphasized. To explain every detail in the parables is not to do them justice. The Good Samaritan is not a story in code, with every little detail being significant (e.g. the donkey, the coins etc.); it’s a carefully shaped story emphasizing the Samaritan and his astonishing generosity.
  • 6. Try to interpret the parable for today. A good translator from one language to another has to understand the words in the first language accurately and then to reproduce them well and faithfully in the other language. So with the parables, we want to do justice to the parable in Jesus’ context, and then to reflect carefully on how to help people hear the parable in today’s quite different context. It is a challenging, but very rewarding task, as we experience the relevance of Jesus’ teaching for us and our world.

David Wenham is tutor of New Testment at Trinity College Bristol.

His book The Parables of Jesus can be seen here.